While some may still be scratching heads at why Xi Jinping’s visit to a Beijing steamed bun restaurant two months ago is still being discussed, it has set off a political trend in China where senior political officials are starting to (gasp!) finally venture out into public to mingle with the common citizenry in a well-documented, well-photographed fashion.
Last Friday, recently appointed mayor of Nanjing Miao Ruilin was spotted taking a crowded public bus like some pleb while attending a construction inspection tour. According to the report, mayor Miao “took two kuai out and asked where to put his coins,” to which the bus driver replied, “there is someone on the bus taking tickets…all you have to do is sit down and take a seat.” Well played, Mr. Miao.
The Weibo response to this case shows how a senior official making a “Bun Move” (is that a term yet?) can sometimes be prone to backfiring: many dubious netizens made comments about the mayor’s unfamiliarity with the ticket system on buses, with netizen CuiACui pointing out how it shows the mayor’s “inability to take care of himself” and JuYingCe calling the mayor “a lord who lives in the clouds.”
The same day as Miao Ruilin’s infamous bus ride, party chief of Jiangxi province Qiang Wei joined a group of copper miners for lunch at their canteen in Dexing. At a first glance, it appears as if Weibo netizens have been a little less critical than they were of the Nanjing mayor’s bus ride.
According to Southern Weekly, there have been 34 reported cases of officials “reaching out to the grassroots” since the establishment of the 18th CPC national congress in November 2012, as opposed to 47 reported cases in the previous five years.
In an interview with the Global Times, Wang Zhanyang, a professor at China’s Central Institute of Socialism pointed out how China is moving towards “modern politics” with an emerging political dynamic “based on public opinions,” and these incidents “indicate a rising trend for actual changes to bureaucracy.”
There are those who believe that these “Bun Moves” are more about image-brandishing than a reflection of institutional bureaucratic changes, as The Atlantic reports: “Though Chairman Mao Zedong cultivated a “man of the people” persona through frequent interactions with the public, modern Chinese politicians more closely resemble faceless bureaucrats than charismatic populists, making Xi’s approach all the more startling—and refreshing.”
As “refreshing” as the approach may be, the potential pitfall of these public appearances extends beyond harsh comments from hypercritical Weibo netizens. For example, not long after Xi’s visit, the steamed bun restaurant in Beijing became a meeting ground for petitioners who used the location’s fame to call out the government for corruption.
Regardless of how you view this political trend, it’s hard to deny the role it plays in implementing China’s “mass line”initiative, which stresses that “furthering the ties between the people is the lifeline of the Party and the fundamental route of work.” It also focuses on cleaning up four “undesirable work styles” – formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism, and extravagance.
On Sunday, senior Chinese official Liu Yunshan reminded everybody that this “mass line” campaign should reach the grassroots CPC and governmental units: He pointed out how successful the first phase of the initiative has been, and how, you know, the second phase needs to be just as good.
“Implementation of the campaign allows no slack or wait-and-see attitude,” Liu said, urging party members to keep a both pro-active and strict approach towards eliminating the undesirable work styles.
CCTV and other media outlets unfortunately failed to report whether or not steamed buns were served at the meeting on Sunday.
By Alex Stevens